Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree hasn’t changed much in the past 44 years—and maybe that’s part of the charm. The animatronic stage show featuring a variety of ursine entertainers has been a Magic Kingdom staple since the Florida park opened on October 1, 1972. Even if you’re a bona fide Liver Lips McGrowl groupie, you may not know these 10 facts about the Country Bears.
1. THE ATTRACTION WAS ORIGINALLY SLATED FOR A DISNEY SKI RESORT.
Back in the mid '60s, Disney had big plans to build a ski resort in California’s Sequoia National Park. In addition to the ski slope, the resort would have included a five-story hotel with 1030 rooms, a movie theater, a general store, ice rinks, tennis courts—and a variety show featuring a band of bears that appeared to have wandered in from the surrounding forest. On September 19, 1966, Disney held a press conference to announce the project. On December 15, 1966, Walt died. Plans for the resort were eventually canceled, but the Imagineers didn’t forget about those animatronic performing bears. Catch a demo for the original idea here.
2. IT WAS ONE OF THE LAST PROJECTS WALT WORKED ON.
Imagineer Marc Davis has said that Disney delighted in the preliminary sketches for the bear band concept. “Walt laughed when he saw [the sketches],” Marc remembered. “He looked awfully bad. He’d been in the hospital, and he’d lost a lung, and so on. Later he came back around ... and I stopped in my doorway ... and as he walked down the hall about 40 feet, he stopped and turned ... he said, ‘Good-bye Marc.’ And that was it. He died a couple of weeks later. And he never said good-bye, usually. He would say, ‘Let’s get together,’ or ‘How about next week?’ or something. I’m positive he had a feeling about it.”
3. IT WAS THE FIRST DISNEY WORLD ATTRACTION TO BE REPLICATED AT DISNEYLAND.
Plenty of attractions from Disneyland ended up in the Sunshine State, but the success of the Country Bears in Disney's Florida park made it the first attraction to be reproduced on the other coast. In fact, in 1972, Big Al and his pals inspired an $8 million Disneyland expansion called “Bear Country.”
4. THERE WAS A COUNTRY BEARS CHRISTMAS SHOW …
When the bears proved to be a roaring success, Disney added a twist to keep park-goers coming back. A kitschy Christmas version of the show, which included holiday songs and seasonal outfits for the bears, ran from 1984 until 2001 at Disneyland, and from 1984 until 2006 in Florida. Some of the props from the show live on in the Walt Disney Archives, including Liver Lips’ Christmas tree-shaped guitar and Teddi Berra’s skis.
5. … BUT LET'S NOT FORGET THE "COUNTRY BEAR VACATION HOEDOWN."
Christmas isn’t the only time Imagineers tinkered with the show. They also created the Country Bear Vacation Hoedown, a version that replaced the original country songs with tunes like “California Bears,” “Thank God I’m a Country Bear,” and “On the Road Again.” If you have fond memories of bears in bikinis and Hawaiian shirts, you need only to hop on a plane to satisfy your nostalgia: Vacation Jamboree is still playing at Tokyo Disneyland, with questionable updates (such as Trixie’s performance of “Achy Breaky Heart”).
6. DISNEYLAND'S WINNIE THE POOH RIDE CONTAINS A REFERENCE TO THE COUNTRY BEARS.
By the ‘90s, enthusiasm for the Jamboree was waning on the West coast. In 2001, another bear was brought in to replace the show—Pooh Bear. Grizzly Hall was renovated to house The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, but you can still catch a glimpse of its predecessor: The taxidermied heads of Max the deer, Melvin the Moose, and Buff the Buffalo can still be seen just before the entrance to the Hunny Heaven room (but you have to turn around in your car to spot them).
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
7. THE COUNTRY BEARS LIVE ON AT DISNEYLAND IN ANOTHER WAY AS WELL.
After the show closed in 2001, rumor has it that Big Al, the sad sack bear who plays guitar, was stripped down to his animatronic skeleton and given new life as Oogie Boogie from Nightmare Before Christmas. He appears seasonally in the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay.
8. BIG AL'S "BLOOD ON THE SADDLE" WAS PERFORMED BY TEX RITTER.
“Blood on the Saddle,” Big Al’s big solo in the show, is a real song originally performed by country singer Tex Ritter, father of actor John Ritter and grandfather of actors Jason and Tyler Ritter. Tex also provided Big Al's singing voice.
9. A FEW OF THE OTHER VOICES MIGHT SOUND FAMILIAR TOO.
If you’re a Disney fan, you’ve probably noticed that the company uses its favorite voice talents again and again. Country Bear Jamboree is no exception. Here’s where you’ve heard a few of those voices:
-The voice of Melvin the moose was provided by Bill Lee, who is also the singing voice of Roger in 101 Dalmatians and Cinderella’s father.
-Melvin’s buddy Buff is voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft, who can also be heard in the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Enchanted Tiki Room. (He’s also Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes fame.)
-Bubbles the bear is a member of the Sun Bonnet Trio, probably best known for the song, “All the Guys That Turn Me On Turn Me Down.” She gets her dulcet tones thanks to coloratura soprano Loulie Jean Norman, who can also be heard over at the Haunted Mansion as the opera-singing ghost in the graveyard. Norman definitely cemented her place in pop culture—she’s also the voice behind the Star Trek theme song and the high part in the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
10. THE ORIGINAL SHOW WAS SPONSORED BY PEPSI AND FRITO LAY.
Even though the sponsorship only lasted 10 years, the show script contained a reference to the Pepsi sponsorship until a 2012 refurbishment. Henry’s line at the beginning of the show, “Just refrain from hibernating, and we’ll all enjoy the show. Because we got a lot to give,” was a nod to Pepsi’s old slogan, “You’ve got a lot to live. Pepsi’s got a lot to give.”
If all of this talk has put you in the mood for some tunes from the all-bear Grand Ole Opry, you’re in luck. Here’s the complete Magic Kingdom show: